371. The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana

The Awakening of Faith  in the Mahayana  is a treatise that was written  in China  around about 550 a.d. It’s attributed to  Aśvaghoṣa  who certainly didn’t write it  and the translation is attributed to  Paramartha,  an important Indian buddhist monk  who  relocated himself to  China. He may have written it. He may also  have written the Buddha Nature treatise. 

It’s a really important treatise. It comes at a point when the Chinese  appear to have assimilated  the  Mahayana  sutras  which, following on from and balancing Narajuna, give  a positive language and a positive view  of emptiness.

Using terms such as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’  or ‘the tathagatagarbha’, the Treatise uses that positive language more comprehensively, and it immediately precedes, and plays a part in forming, the distinctively  Chinese schools: the T’ient’aithe Tendai school,  the Huayan school,  the Zen school  and the Pure Land school.

The most famous commentary  on the treatise was by Fazang, the  third patriarch  of the  Huayan  school.

The Treatise sets out, in a very  systematic and terse way, the  nature of   reality.  It takes as its  starting point  a position of  imminence rather than  duality or transcendence.  The nature of that imminance  it calls ‘Suchness’ . When  Suchness  manifests itself  in the phenomenal realm, (which is not separate from the absolute  realm) , it’s called ‘Mind’. 

This is an extremely important point  because it helps clarify  what people like Mazu/Baso meant when they were talking about  Ordinary Mind.

It continues, in a clearer and more methodical way, the innovation in the Lankavatara Sutra of combining two separate Mahayanan threads. The first, originally in the Tathagatagarbha sutra and later in the Nirvana sutra, is of all beings having  – in some sense – Buddha Nature. The second is the Yogacara concept of the eight  consciousnesses, but specifically the  alaya -storehouse- consciousness. Putting these two  together was natural, as the Chinese chose to use  the word  ‘zong’, treasure house/storehouse  for both the  alaya consciousness, and also  the tathagatagarbha. 

The  basic idea  is  that our underlying reality is thusness or  suchness  but that is overlayed by  ignorance.  That ignorance  doesn’t have a beginning ( because it has never truly existed), but it does  have an end.  

When there’s a turn to enlightenment,  the  eighth consciousness, the storehouse  consciousness, ( which is anyway fused – in a not entirely clear way – with the Tathagatagarbha Buddha Nature)  purifies itself, and the tathagatagarbha emerges.

That  is one really  helpful aspect of the treatise because  that  perspective  is  the one which  generally attains dominance  within Chinese Buddhism subsequently, but is often assumed rather than stated, which can make understanding what people of that time were trying to say difficult. 

The overarching metaphor which is used in the Treatise  is the ocean  and the waves. The ocean ( in a departure from the more negative use of the ocean as a metaphor for samsara)  represents suchness or mind and  the waves  represent phenomenal reality. The waves are  created by the wind of  ignorance or externality. The point is that the waves -ignorance- are  conditional, but the ocean isn’t, yet even in that conditionality, the waves are always part of the ocean. Just as the waves are always wet, Suchness is always here, whatever our confusion.

We can also see the importance of Faith, standing in stark contrast to our ideas of attainment and self improvement.

When the wind  dies down  through practice and through  faith,  the  ocean becomes like a mirror,  clearly reflecting whatever is there. Reflecting the moon above. Rendering visible the pearl of wisdom at the bottom of the ocean.

And that also ties in with Yogacara, where it’s said that the eighth  consciousness, when purified, becomes like a great mirror. And the mirror metaphor  is very  frequently used by the Zen teachers, although not exclusively in this way.

There’s a dance between different  but related  metaphors: the ocean and the waves and  the mirror. And we must add space, which in the  Treatise is used as a synonym  for  suchness,  thusness and emptiness.  It’s used in  that way  because space is indivisible.You  wouldn’t say there’s 10 square metres of  space in my room and outside  there’s another 50 square metres of space and the two are different. Space is the same space whether it’s  here or a billion miles away, and the space holds all beings within it.

In that sense, space is a metaphor ( and in meditation, the reality) for the unitary  nature of  being expressed in the Dharmakaya. Which is why  it’s said that  the Buddha’s true body, the Dharmakaya, is  just like space. 

In the treatise the word mahayana  isn’t a reference to the Mahayana school.  It’s a reference to suchness. So it’s faith in suchness, not in the tenets of the Mahayana.

The  Treatise is in effect saying that faith in the reality of suchness manifests suchness. So what is primarily required from us  is faith,because everything follows from that. And, the first classic of Zen literature is Verses of Faith Mind.